“The war was well and truly over. A fresh new marque had won the first post war Le Mans and the front gate had been fat.
The winner, a naturalized American, spoke soothingly to one of his most prosperous customers about the glories of Le Mans. Not that Briggs S. Cunningham needed much prodding. His pals, the Florida-based Collier brothers (the family even had a county on the subtropical peninsula named for them), were old Le Mans hands and Briggs was ripe for a European vacation involving fast cars and old friends.
He had planned to enter a pair of “Fordillacs” from Frick Tappett Motors on Long Island: stock Ford business coupes with lightly modified Cadillac V-8 engines. It was a potent mixture of hot rod and blue collar Q-ship. But the ACO said that the “Fordillacs” were mongrels, not true production models and, as neither Ford nor Cadillac, would not be permitted. Not even by one of Chinetti’s pals.
So Briggs entered a pair of Cadillacs in proper American FIA white and blue; one a near stock Series 60 coupe with a three speed manual transmission (that was to be found nowhere on the Cadillac order sheet) and a re-bodied – just fine with the ACO – Series 60 with a vast aerodynamic roadster body penned by Grumman’s low speed aerodynamic specialist Howard Weinman. GM’s Ed Cole designed a five-carb manifold for the roadster (the center Carter carburetor acted alone until full throttle opened all five).
The French loved the unlovely roadster and instantly nicknamed it le monster. This was also fine with Briggs. And when they called the plush and imposing Caddy coupe petit petaud, Briggs summoned a sign painter to paint the nicknames on the hoods, right next to the American flags. The Cunningham Caddys even had two-way radios and all manner of trick endurance racing gadgets. But the stock Coupe was faster than le monstre, and when Briggs tried to remedy that by opening up all five carburetors the V-8’s hydraulic lifters pumped up and quit. So they set a 4400 rpm rev limit on le monstre and stuck to it.
Le Mans veteran Miles Collier suggested that shovels might be added to the compliment of on board gear. He had seen hours sucked into the sand bank at Mulsanne, but Briggs rejected the idea as superfluous; they had planned for every contingency. They were all mature adults who had survived the war. They wouldn’t be seduced into some testosterone-fueled one-hour grand prix. And while they were racers, true enough, they were, above all, gentlemen who were supposed to be immune to such adolescent throttle happy temptations.
They were also the only Americans, unless you counted three-time Le Mans winner Luigi Chinetti, and they did. Sidney Allard had entered one of his new Cadillac-powered J2 models. Somehow the ACO determined the British car with the Cadillac engine was a production model and assigned Sid the number “four” and parked him next to Sam and Miles Collier’s Cadillac Berline on Saturday afternoon.
The British were again well represented. The tallish Bentley coupe was back. There were a pair of Frazier-Nashes, two Healeys, one with a 3.8 liter Nash engine, but the ACO said that this too was a production car. Aston sent along three DB2 coupes with the lovely dohc six engine and Coventry provided three of the sensational new Jaguar XK120s. But the bulk of the entries were, appropriately, French and most of them had decidedly
Two-time winner Raymond Sommer, robbed of six years by the war, began his summer long farewell tour. Retirement loomed and he had entered Le Mans for a final time in a Ferrari. Louis Rosier, winner of the ’49 Belgian GP in one of Tony Lago’s normally aspirated 4.5 liter monopostos, teamed with his son in a very thinly disguised Talbot GP. They lined up next to Sidney Allard’s number-four. Italy sent five Ferraris – Luigi Chinetti was back – and a FIAT. In all, 60 entries.
Even the circuit had been modified and massaged. There was new non-skid pavement — Sommer had nearly lapped at 100 mph in practice – everywhere but the mile on the narrow run from Mulsanne to Arnage, plus a new footbridge just past the pits built in the image of a huge slice of Dunlop tire.
The number-four Allard, with Tommy Cole up, was first under the new Dunlop Bridge. Five minutes later the order was Ferrari (Sommer), Allard, Talbot and Peter Whitehead in one of the lovely and sonorous new XK-120 Jaguars. On the second lap Briggs Cunningham was digging furiously at Mulsanne having found the sand nose first. He was lucky. His escape, without the Miles Collier-nominated shovel, took just 15 minutes.
Raymond Sommer simply checked out on the field averaging 96 mph, but Tommy Cole hung on in the Anglo-American hot rod with Rosier’s number-five Talbot third. At five o’clock Rosier decided not to let Sommer escape, passed Cole and decided to study the Ferrari coupe’s game plan from second place. When the leading Ferrari went on to eleven cylinders Rosier moved into the lead and proceeded to celebrate the cool of the evening with a stunning lap record of 102.84 mph.
Chinetti now had the best of the Ferraris in second position. By midnight Rosier’s Talbot was two laps up on the barchetta. Another Talbot was third and Leslie Johnson had the #17 Jaguar a solid fourth another lap back but a full lap ahead of the Allard. Rolt’s Healey was fifth and George Abcassis had the Aston-Martin DB2 he shared with Lance Macklin seventh, seven laps behind.
Good weather usually means a fast pace. Dawn revealed the night’s romp had done its mean work. The Rosier Talbot required a new rocker arm and that wasted five laps. By that time Lord Selsdon, whose name appears next to Luigi Chinetti’s as co-winner of the ’49 ronde infernale, was hospitalized when his Ferrari flipped at Tertre Rouge.
With eight hours remaining the number-seven Talbot of Guy Mairesse and Pierre Meyrat passed the stationary Talbot of the Rosiers, father and son, who were pitted. Abecassis had spent the early morning fiddling with his Aston DB2 but worked back into the top five behind Tony Rolt’s and Duncan Hamilton’s 3.8 liter Healey and the fast and relentless XK-120 of Bert Hadley and Leslie Johnson.
The Cadillacs circulated almost leisurely in 11th and 13th places. (It was the custom of the Cunningham equipe to ignore the leader board and stick with a firm schedule until 10:00 a.m. Sunday and then race for it.) The Colliers had lost all but top gear in petie pataud and were cruising around in top gear, leaning on the Caddy’s ample torque curve. Briggs himself and Phil Walters were learning about Le Mans, plotting future assaults and looking forward to 4:00 p.m in le monstre.
Rosier, who had been driving as if in a three-hour grand prix, caught and passed the leading number-seven Talbot during the 18th hour. The only trouble to visit the leading Talbot came late in the morning with senior at the wheel (he ultimately drove all but one shift) when a bird crashed into the Talbot’s little windscreen.
Leslie Johnson retired the number-17 XK-120 after the transmission main shaft snapped blemishing a fine and fast debut. Only Tommy Cole was running hard in the final hour. The leading Talbots were cruising and well within reach of Le Mans’ 2000 mile barrier. But Cole too was struggling along in top gear, the Allard on same lap as the third place Healey and with far less weight for his one-speed 331 ci V-8 Cadillac to move. At 3:30 p.m. he passed Rolt’s Healey for third. The second place Talbot was too far – three laps – up the road, and Cole resigned himself to third.
The Cadillacs finished 10th and 11th qualifying for the 1951 24 Hours. Briggs Ciningham and company went home to build their own cars. Chrysler had a new V-8 that made even more power and torque than the solid and reliable Cadillac.
“This is a lead pipe cinch.” Cunningham told his band of gentlemen racers. Then the whole team went back to Paris for some serious dining and rest before heading off to Reims for the Grand Prix de l’ACF the following weekend. On Sunday morning 2 July, they stopped at the American monument at Chateau Thierry to pay their respects to a group of Americans who had paid their debt to Lafayette in full.
That afternoon they watched Juan Fangio – who, like Briggs, had just made his first start at Le Mans — win the fifth round of the brand new Formula 1 World Championship for Alfa Romeo. They drove fast and wore coats and ties. Later there was Champagne and sober talk of June, 1951.